strtoupper('“T')here Were So Many People That They Could Not All Be Governed by One Teacher”
Social: The reason for the institution of "church" is that there are too many people to "be governed by one teacher, neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly." One of the pressures that Alma's "church" responds to is the increase in population size. What is less clear from a modern perspective is how radical this change was. To understand what is happening here, which is nothing less than a religious revolution, we need to understand what Alma's "churches" were and how they contrasted to what was in place before Alma arrives on the scene.
We really have little to go on to define Alma's "churches." The one thing we should not do is base our understanding of Alma's "churches" on our own conceptions of "church." While this is the term used to translate what is going on, it may or may not accurately describe Alma's organization.
What do we know about Alma's "church" from the text alone?
- The "church" is entered by baptism.
- The "church" is apparently attached to some small geographic area allowing for a smaller number of people to view themselves as an associated religious community.
- Each "church" has an organization that has local priests and teachers.
- Alma will retain control over these local "churches" so that there is a line of control from Alma to each of the priests and teachers, and through them to the congregation.
How does this contrast with the pre-Alma situation?
- Nephite baptism exists, but there is no indication that it is used as a marker of entrance into a specific covenant that differed from the greater social covenant of Israel. Early doctrinal discussions of Jacob make it clear that the Nephites considered themselves part of the covenant people. This would have continued as a collective covenant up to the time of Alma, when his baptism makes an individual covenant. King Benjamin had begun an individually accepted covenant, but even that is given in the context and assumption of communal participation in the covenant. Only Alma's baptism denotes a separation in the community rather than a communal action.
- Priests and teachers had been appointed before, but not segregated to individual congregations. The original priests and teachers would have again been communal as opposed to the segregated functions assigned to them by Alma.
- The locus of religious authority resided in the king. Indeed, ancient kingship carried with it the presumption of divine investiture of power, covering all of society. As has been noted multiple times before, religion was part and parcel of reality and therefore not seen as something that could be deemed separate. The establishment of Alma as a separate authority from the king not only diminishes the king, but establishes the possibility of the local "churches" by recognizing that religious authority may be ultimately delegated away from the communal unity embodied by the king.
What then was Alma's "church" not that we might presume that it was? At least in its inception, it was not a separate religious system among other religious systems.
While Alma's reforms ultimately led to the possibility of seeing "church" as synonymous with "sect," in this earliest setting it is much better seen as closer to the original Greek ekklesia or gathering. Alma's "church" was a congregation physically separated from other similar congregations. The pragmatics of this ability to segregate into smaller groups would be the better mode of indoctrination of the congregation.
When the Zarahemla population had grown too large for indoctrination en masse, the division into smaller congregations would allow for more effective teaching, and therefore perhaps better understanding, and (one would hope) better daily integration of the correct principles.